US: Democrats Attack Teacher Unions

Resist Illinois Senate Bill 7!

Across the United States unionized public sector workers, particularly teachers, have been under relentless attack from the corporate elite and their political stooges. Newly elected Republican governors and legislators, like Scott Walker in Wisconsin, have pushed outright union busting measures stripping public sector unions of their collective bargaining rights. In Wisconsin, this assault was met by a tremendous and sustained mass mobilization of ordinary people.

The Democrats, by contrast, have sought to portray themselves as “friends of labor” who oppose Scott Walker-style union busting and believe in workers’ rights. Yet in Illinois the Democrat-controlled legislature is debating a bill, SB 7, directed at the teachers’ unions that in many respects is as anti-union as the measures proposed by right wing Republicans elsewhere.

And to be clear: taking down the teacher unions is part of the wider corporate goal of undermining public sector unions as a whole.

A gift to the billionaires

SB 7 would severely restrict the right to strike for Chicago teachers. The bill not only would require that 75% of the entire membership vote in favor (i.e. not just 75% of those who vote) but then mandates a complex process of notification, mediation and “cooling off” that would all work to management’s advantage. It is clear that the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) is being targeted for special treatment because it is perceived as a particular obstacle to the corporate agenda.

Equally important is that the bill effectively ends the use of seniority in determining layoffs across Illinois. Instead, layoffs will be determined by “performance” which in turn will be measured by high stakes tests. As we have explained in other material, without seniority it will be possible to target “troublemakers,” union activists, and veterans generally for layoffs. There is some question as to whether currently pending litigation could wind up exempting Chicago from this provision but the effect on teachers throughout the rest of the state would be immediate.

SB 7 also mandates that teacher evaluations are tied to test scores. Evaluations based on test “performance” will make it far easier to fire “ineffective” teachers in general and the bill is explicit about this aim.

SB 7 would make it possible for incoming Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to lengthen the school day and the school year without having to negotiate any pay increase for teachers. In reality this would mean a unilaterally imposed cut in hourly pay for teachers.

It turns out that SB 7 also means that the Illinois Labor Relations Board would no longer have jurisdiction over teacher contracts and that breaches of contract which constitute unfair labor practices could no longer be brought before them. This is a dismantling of an important part of existing industrial relations machinery and a big gain for management.

The Illinois Senate passed SB 7 unanimously and it seems certain that the General Assembly will also pass it shortly. Again, it should be emphasized that it is the Democrats who are driving this process in Illinois. Rahm Emanuel was apparently directly involved in the negotiations leading to SB 7 which were spearheaded by Democratic Senator Kimberly Lightford.

The position of the unions

Given the content of SB 7, it is in no way surprising that advocates of corporate education reform have hailed the bill. Jonah Edelman, CEO of Stand for Children, a fake grassroots group funded by billionaires to campaign for union busting measures, put it this way: “The changes to Illinois’ education system agreed to by all parties will make Illinois a national model, and set a standard for other states to follow.”

In this context it is outrageous that the top leaders of the Illinois teachers unions including the CTU, the Illinois Federation of Teachers and the Illinois Education Association all endorsed SB 7! Especially disturbing was the endorsement of Karen Lewis, who won a resounding victory last June to become the President of the CTU at the head of the dissident Caucus of Rank and File Educator’s (CORE) slate.

Socialist Alternative welcomed Lewis and CORE’s victory precisely because they opposed privatization of the schools, President Obama’s Race to the Top program and backroom deals between union leaders and the bosses without involving the membership. Their positions were in marked contrast to those of Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who has turned negotiating sellouts into an art form. But we also emphasized that the new leadership of the CTU would come immediately under ferocious pressure and that mistakes were possible and even likely.

At first Lewis and the other CORE leaders did take a markedly different approach to their predecessors. When Chicago Public Schools boss Ron Huberman demanded that the CTU agree to reopen its contract and rescind pay raises, they stood firm. They also involved a wider layer of union activists in negotiations.

The perverse logic of “negotiating concessions”

However, by the start of this year it was clear that something was amiss. Politicians who had received significant campaign contributions from billionaire education “deformers” (funneled through Stand for Children) brought forward the “Performance Counts” bill, a frontal attack on the teacher unions which, in addition to abolishing seniority, would have also abolished tenure, made strikes virtually illegal and severely restricted collective bargaining for teachers. In desperation, the union leaders agreed to negotiate a new piece of legislation in exchange for taking Performance Counts off the table.

Lewis then went into the room with the corporate politicians and several months later walked out with the SB 7 abomination. Of course it has been claimed in defense of SB 7 that some of the most onerous elements of Performance Counts were removed, but the outcome remains a vicious attack on union rights. This is a classic illustration of where the logic of “negotiating concessions” leads. Unfortunately, working with management to institute concessions has been the approach of most U.S. union leaders for decades.

Of course unions have to negotiate with the bosses, and even militant unions will sometimes be forced to make concessions, but this should be only after mobilizing the membership around clear demands to defend their interests and pushing hard for the maximum possible in the given situation. This can involve a range of tactics from lobbying and protests to mass civil disobedience and strike action. What SB 7 exemplifies is that it is not enough to simply replace self-serving bureaucrats like former CTU president Marilyn Stewart with “well-intentioned” leaders, place the new leaders in negotiations with corporate politicians, but with no mobilization of the union’s power, and then expect the outcome to be different.

Resistance is beginning

The good news is that CORE and the CTU have moved to correct this error. On April 25, CORE met and rejected Lewis’ support for SB 7, as did the union’s executive a few days later. Most importantly, this stand was ratified by the union’s House of Delegates on May 4. It is now absolutely crucial to mobilize the membership and other public sector workers to oppose this measure that is objectively a threat to all unions in Illinois. Illinois teachers need to get on the streets and make it clear that “business as usual” is over. It may not be possible at this stage to stop the General Assembly from passing this legislation, but it must be made clear to the corporate politicians that there will be a price to be paid for their actions.

If this attack along with the disastrous error of the union leaders help to galvanize teachers and other public sector workers and prepares them for the battles looming ahead, then all will not be lost.

Much of the emphasis in critical commentary about SB 7 to date has been on the restriction on the right to strike. But in order to effectively mobilize the wider union membership emphasis should also be placed on the attack on seniority, the tying of performance evaluations to test scores and the probable lengthening of the working day and working year without an increase in pay– in reality an hourly pay cut.

Of course, the question of a broader strategy for resisting the corporate offensive, including being prepared to go on strike despite it’s illegality, is a vital discussion for union activists. After all, it was the willingness to strike that got teachers their collective bargaining rights in the first place. The CTU was a particularly militant teachers’ union which went out on strike repeatedly in the 70s and 80s.

Nor is this an abstract discussion at the moment. Teachers held sickouts in Wisconsin in the initial stage of the fight against the Walker bill. There was widespread sentiment for a public sector general strike as the necessary next step in the struggle, a sentiment that was fiercely resisted by the national union leaders. Currently in Michigan the local NEA affiliate is balloting 155,000 teachers and school support staff to authorize strikes to resist a new law that allows “emergency managers” to take over local governments and school districts in bad financial shape and, among other things, rip up union contracts.

A class struggle policy

Building a wider resistance to the attacks on jobs, services and public sector unions means discarding the longstanding “political strategy” of the union leadership. We should no longer give political support to “friend of labor” Democrats (or Republicans) and then try to call in favors. This failed approach is especially pronounced in the teacher unions. The policy of class collaboration must be replaced by a policy of class struggle.

The challenges faced by the Caucus of Rank and File Educators in the last period are not isolated. The reform leadership of the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), initially elected six years ago, has faltered as well. This is partly because, while it effectively mobilized the membership around a range of issues, it failed at a critical juncture to take decisive action against mass layoffs. In particular, UTLA buckled in the face of a court injunction against the threat of a one day strike in 2008 and instead wound up agreeing to seven unpaid furlough days to avoid further layoffs. Reform groups in other unions propelled into office because of discredited old guard do-nothing leaders have also for the most part failed to deliver on expectations.

Why is this? One can point out that the activist layer on which these reform groups have been based is extremely narrow compared to the past. This reflects the massive negative effects on workers consciousness of the neo-liberal period from which we are only beginning to emerge. There is also a generation (or two) of workers in the unions who have almost no direct experience of real class struggle.

But big events are now unfolding. The uprising in Wisconsin demonstrates conclusively that wide sections of the American working class are prepared to fight back against the never ending attacks on their living standards and rights. Events and struggles will be the catalyst for creating tens of thousands of new fighters prepared to struggle and sacrifice to create a better future. Socialists have a crucial role to play in the discussion about the way forward and in educating activists about the history and lessons of class struggle. The unfolding debate about SB 7 in the CTU and the union’s attempt to right its course gives CORE the opportunity to rebuild itself with a new clarity and purpose as a weapon for teachers in the critical battles ahead.

Tom Crean is a special education teacher in New York City and a chapter leader in the United Federation of Teachers writing in a personal capacity. He is the author of the pamphlet Save Our Schools: The Fight to Defeat the Corporate Attack on Public Education which can be read at

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May 2011